Flexibility and innovation in college completion: How to provide low-cost, comprehensive support services

In an October blog post, I identified the two keys to supporting Dell Scholars as they pursue college degrees:  flexibility and innovation.  These two attributes of the program allow our staff and Dell Scholar Ambassadors to evaluate risk, prioritize early interventions, work efficiently, apply a holistic set of indicators on an ongoing basis to offer the right kind of help at the right point in time, track our progress and support scholars through graduation.
Innovation and flexibility allow us to execute the Dell Scholars Program’s core principles: 1) Know each individual Dell Scholar; 2) Adapt our strategies to the needs of each student; and 3) Measure our effectiveness.

At the foundation, we recognize that innovations such as novel ideas or ground-breaking models can be the impetus for transformational change.  Yet sometimes, the most impactful innovations are actually better, faster or cheaper ways of implementing existing ideas or programs.

Dell Scholars often struggle with personal issues, planning for life events or simply managing daily life which affects their education, work, health and family. Providing scalable wrap-around services to support Dell Scholars as they work to obtain a college degree required that we look beyond traditional approaches and evolve our program to truly meet the needs of the students and their families.  Thus, the Scholar Resource Network (SRN) was born.

Similar to the foundation’s own employee assistance program — provided by many corporations and organizations – the Dell Scholars Program is the first college persistence program to leverage a network of resources to provide comprehensive support, resources and information for personal and work-life issues. The SRN has allowed us to successfully support more than 2,100 students, their spouses, their dependents, their parents and qualifying family members in a cost-effective way.

At the foundation, we recognize that innovations such as novel ideas or ground-breaking models can be the impetus for transformational change. Yet sometimes, the most impactful innovations are actually better, faster or cheaper ways of implementing existing ideas or programs.

The SRN is particularly helpful to first-generation college students who, as research shows, struggle to adjust to life on campus and graduate with a degree in hand. Services provided by the SRN include:

  • Confidential counseling – The no-cost counseling service helps scholars address stress, relationship and other personal issues the students or their families may face. It’s staffed by highly trained clinicians who listen to concerns and quickly refer individuals to in-person counseling and other resources for stress, anxiety, depression, relationship conflicts, job pressures, grief or substance abuse.
  • Financial information and resources – Scholars and their families consult with Certified Public Accountants and Certified Financial Planners on a wide range of financial issues such as debt reduction, taxes, retirement and estate planning, savings plans and funding for college.
  • Work-life solutions – Specialists provide qualified referrals and customized resources for child and elder care, moving and relocation, event planning, pet care, home repair and major purchases.
  • GuidanceResources® Online – A one-stop resource for scholars providing expert information on issues that matter most—relationships, work, school, children, wellness, legal, financial, free time and more. Printed materials, tutorials, videos, self-assessments, “Ask the Expert” personal responses and resource finders are all available to scholars and their eligible family members.
  • Legal support and resources – Qualified attorneys offer free phone consultations and a 25 percent reduction in fees for additional services. Scholars can seek legal assistance for divorce, family issues, debt and bankruptcy, housing issues, real estate transactions, contracts and civil and criminal actions.

Since the program’s inception in 2004, we’ve been known for our innovative approach to supporting students.  Our lean full-time staff and Dell Scholar Ambassadors are creative, resourceful and relentless, yet we recognized that our team alone couldn’t provide ongoing services and assistance to address all of the emotional, lifestyle, and financial challenges that may prevent our scholars from completing college.  By applying a scalable solution familiar to millions of American workers, we’re able to help our scholars navigate the transition from high school to college and help them stay on track to graduation once they arrive on campus.

My team and I will always be open to breakthrough ideas that could have a catalytic impact on the program.  For us, however, innovation also includes better ways of applying knowledge and resources to ensure our all scholars complete college with a degree in hand.

Oscar Sweeten-Lopez is the leader of the Dell Scholars Program, he oversees the foundation’s comprehensive college persistence services to improve the four-year college graduation rates of high-risk students.